About a year ago I was giving a demonstration of how I facilitate postural adjustments with clients. At the end of the demo a woman in the audience said: “I really loved watching what you do, and it was so obvious that you have worked with animals in the past. Can you please tell us more about your training?” I saw a look of confusion on some of the faces in the audience, but I was very pleased by what the lady had to say. I have learned a good deal about working with people, by the years I spent learning how to train dogs.
As a young boy I had the opportunity to train with a man who was a master at “obedience” and guard dog training. On my first day of study he took me to an industrial site. Behind the fence of one warehouse yard was a madly barking dog who seemed intent at ripping us to pieces. My teacher handed me the keys to the fence lock and said “This is the first time I have seen this dog, and I have been asked to tame him down some. Open the gate and let the dog loose.” I immediately started to think that raising tropical fish would be a better hobby than training dogs.
“I am new to all of this.” I said, “Why don’t you open the gate and show me how to do it?”
“I tell you what” he said, “Either I kneel down about ten feet from the gate and you swing the gate open so the dog cannot get to you, or we will do it the other way around, with you kneeling down out in the open.” It didn’t take me long to start putting the key in the lock, as my teacher moved to an open space and knelt down.
Low and behold, the dog raced out, seeming to ignore my teacher on the one hand, but running around in large loping circles that my teacher was the center of. My teacher was calm and slow to move, and eventually he reached in his pocket and pulled out some doggie treats. Within a minute or two he literally had the dog eating out of his hand.
“The lesson is,” he said, “Every dog that’s been trained in a violent manner barks and growls and appears to be genuinely mean when they are behind the fence. All the dog is really doing is showing you how frightened he is. The dog is expecting to be mistreated by you just as he has been mistreated by his trainer, and thus he is simply trying to protect himself and not the premises. When you open the gate on such dogs they invariably run out of the yard. Mistreated animals have no real ‘home’ to protect because there is nowhere in the world where they feel safe, loved, and protected. If your dog does not feel protected BY you, he will not protect FOR you.”
Intuitively this made a lot of sense. I thought back on the kids that were the most violent in my high school. The ones from my neighborhood, I knew came from violent families. Their outward violence in school was actually a preemptive strike. Just like the mistreated guard dog, these kids were expecting to get mistreated by others, and thus they went into attack mode as a confused form of self defense, NOT as a form of offense. “The louder the dog barks,” my teacher said, “The more frightened he is. The primary identity of a beaten dog is one of fear.”
When you are feeling misunderstood or at risk in a relationship with another person, or when you are having difficulty understanding your own behavior, it is suggested that you pause, take a deep breath, release any excess tension, and ponder this question: “What is the primary identity being expressed here?” Asking this question will help you to have better appreciation and understanding, for how to respond. When we ponder the catalyst for behavior it is common to discover that a problematic behavior is usually generated by a primary identity of fear, isolation, or lack of abundance. The barking guard dog lunging at passers-by is considered mean and violent, when indeed the dog is trying to protect itself from further mistreatment. The primary identity of the dog is one of fear. The same can be seen and understood in human beings. Aggressive and or violent people are expecting attacks from others, and they therefore often mount attacks on others in a confused attempt to protect themselves. Each time the forceful behavior of a frightened person draws a violent response, the person feels as if their “defensive” behavior has been vindicated. Violent responses from others feed a person’s primary identity of fear.
The concept of “primary identity” or what we sometimes call “core identity” is an important part of the philosophy of Aikido. In Aikido we believe that when a person is spiritually, emotionally, and physically balanced they will experience their “true” primary identity. This is an identity in which they feel connected to their emotions and their body, supported by others, and protected by the benevolent presence of Spirit/God/”The Force.” I know to many this might seem like a notion that is meant only for dreamers, and not for those that actually have to be active participants in the world, but indeed it forms the basis for a highly effective and pragmatic martial art.
Aikido is not suggesting that we should trust the ethics and honesty of everyone in every occasion. What Aikido IS saying is that a person who attacks another human being is a person who is disconnected from their “true” primary identity, and is thus reacting from a perspective of fear, isolation, and or a believed dearth of resources. The best way to “counter” such an attack is to remain aware, relaxed, and emotionally balanced, while also being concerned for and connected to the well being of your seeming adversary. We are meant to inhale the “true” primary identity of our counterpart, and exhale our connection to them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Aikido experience shows us that our feeling of connection and caring for our counterpart is definitely felt by them on a somatic/unconscious level. When “the attacker’s” feeling mind is touched by a benevolent presence they subconsciously realize that danger is not immanent, and thus their fear and their need for attack, is lessened.
I can say from my twenty plus years of Aikido practice, that responding to aggressive fear with connection and calmness, is a very transformative experience for both parties involved. There is something so special about being in a highly challenging situation, and “poof” prior to thinking you find yourself taking a deep breath, and feeling your muscles respond by relaxing. You notice that your eyes soften ever so much, and that the sounds in the space somehow become more mellow. At the very least, you notice your counterpart becomes somewhat confused, because you are “replying” to their aggression by embracing and absorbing what they are putting forth, rather than by mounting a counterattack. Such interactions sear the memory of my soul, and give me greater faith in life.
The next time you meet someone with a guard dog mentality what will you do?
Keep them barking and lunging behind their self imposed fence? Or let that out to play, so that you can eventually become friends?